Past Events

Humeanism and the Pragmatic Turn – May 2021

On 12-13 May 2021, the FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham and the University of Florida co-hosted a free two-day workshop entitled ‘Humeanism and the Pragmatic Turn’ via Zoom.

The workshop poster/flyer is available here.

If you have any queries about this event, please email


Wednesday 12 May

1400-1510: John Roberts (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
“Responsibility and the Natural Modalities”

1525-1635: Christian Loew (Umeå University, Sweden), Siegfried Jaag (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf), and Michael Hicks (University of Birmingham)
“Laws and Normativity”

1650-1800: Jenann Ismael (Columbia University)
“Some Questions about the Role of Totality in the Best Systems Analysis”

Thursday 13 May

1400-1510: Vera Matarese (University of Bern)
“Super-Humean Fictionalism”

1525-1635: Toby Friend (University of Bristol)
“In Defense of Pure Pith”

1650-1800: Barry Loewer (Rutgers University, New Brunswick)
“Let’s Make a (Package) Deal”


John Roberts (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
“Responsibility and the Natural Modalities”

A pragmatist approach to laws, causation, counterfactuals and so on begins by following Wittgenstein’s advice to look for the use, not the meaning.  So, how do we use the concepts of law, causation, counterfactuals and so on?  In lots of ways.  But one particular family of uses stands out, namely the ways in which we use statements about causal relations, law-statements, and counterfactual conditionals to block or permit attributions of responsibility for outcomes to agents.  I show how to reductively analyze these natural modalities in terms of concepts pertaining to responsibility, and how to use a pragmatist theory of responsibility to generate pragmatist theories of the natural modalities.

Christian Loew (Umeå University, Sweden), Siegfried Jaag (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf), and Michael Hicks (University of Birmingham)
“Laws and Normativity”  

It is widely agreed that any theory of laws needs to be able to explain inferences from nomic facts to certain non-nomic facts, such as why ‘that it is a law that p’ entails ‘that p’. This challenge is often called the ‘inference problem.’ In this paper, we show that there is an additional ‘normativity problem’: theories of laws need to explain why nomic facts entail certain normative facts, such as what agents ought to do and believe. We will argue that solving the inference problem is not enough to solve the normativity problem and that neither non-Humean theories of laws nor the orthodox Humean best systems account can solve the latter. By contrast, we argue that recent pragmatist versions of Humean reductionism about laws have a ready solution to the normativity problem.

Vera Matarese (University of Bern)
“Super-Humean Fictionalism”

Can Super-Humeanism be legitimately regarded as a fully-fledged scientific realist view? Supporters of Super-Humeanism respond in the affirmative. Indeed, even though they take the properties figuring in the laws to be mere dynamical parameters that should not be interpreted literally, they have recently proposed a functionalist account to locate them in the primitive ontology and to vindicate their existence. I argue, on the contrary, that this functionalist strategy is dubious and that it is not enough to recover scientific realism. Instead, drawing on Varzi’s work on Humean Fictionalism, I propose that Super-Humeanism should be regarded as a fictionalist view. According to this view, the dynamical parameters appearing in the laws should be interpreted as face-value, but sentences about them should not be regarded as strictly expressing the truth. Since this fictionalist view only targets the dynamical structure of our theories, and is not properly ontological, it is still compatible with metaphysical realism and the primitive ontology approach. Moreover, given that it regards the dynamical structure of our theories as the best possible ‘fiction’ to make sense of reality, it also grounds and justifies our belief that reality should be structured with the laws that these theories propose. I will conclude that this view is not a scientific realist view. However, I will also suggest that the gap between such a fictionalist view and scientific realism is not as severe as one would think.

Toby Friend (University of Bristol)
“In Defense of Pure Pith”  

Lewis’s Best Systems Account (BSA) of laws was not much motivated by pragmatics. But recent commentary on his general approach to laws has taken a ‘pragmatic turn’. This was initiated by Hall’s defence against the ‘ratbag idealist’ which argued that best system accounts should be admired rather than criticised for the inherent pragmatism behind their choice of desiderata for what counts as ‘best’. Emboldened by Hall’s pragmatic turn, recent commentators have proposed the addition of pragmatically motivated desiderata to complement the canonical desideratum of pure pith. This, they hope, will allow their revisionary BSAs to respond better to various counterexamples against the original account. Here I problematise these revisionary approaches (though not the pragmatic turn itself). While actual laws may satisfy the newly proposed desiderata, they cannot be constitutive of laws. By comparison, the canonical desideratum appears to be relevant to explaining why and when the revisionary desiderata will reflect pragmatic features of the laws and better reflect the motives behind practitioners of fundamental physics. I therefore attempt to respond to the counterexamples on behalf of the Lewis’s ‘canonical’, purely pithy, BSA.

Barry Loewer (Rutgers University, New Brunswick)
“Let’s Make a (Package) Deal”

I will describe an account of laws of nature that is a descendent and improvement on Lewis Humean Best Systems Account (BSA) called “The Package Deal Account” (PDA) Lewis describes the BSA as a package deal since it proposes a package that includes both laws and chances. But it is a package in which the perfectly natural properties and space-time are not part of the package but are metaphysically prior to laws and chances. In contrast, the PDA is a package that includes fundamental properties, space-time, and laws and chances in one big package. Neither fundamental laws nor fundamental properties are metaphysically prior to the other. Because of this the PDA overcomes a number of objections to Lewis’ BSA and is an account that is closer to the practice of physics.

Counterfactual Reasoning in Science Workshop, Mar 2021

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Image: Harold Edgerton, Bullet Through Apple, 1964 (printed in 1984) Dye transfer print on paper, /240 40.8 x 50.8 cm 16.063 x 20 inches. © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT.

On Thursday 25 March 2021, the FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham hosted a free half-day workshop on the topic of counterfactual reasoning in science, via Zoom.

If you have any queries about this event, please email


2.30-3.20pm: Ruth Byrne (Trinity College Dublin)
“How people reason with counterfactual and counterpossible conditionals”

10-min break

3.30-4.20pm: Marco J. Nathan (University of Denver)
“Counterfactuals as Placeholders: Take II”

4.40-5.30pm: Peter Tan (Fordham University)
“Two Theses about Modality and Modelling”


Ruth Byrne (Trinity College Dublin)
“How people reason with counterfactual and counterpossible conditionals”
When people understand and reason from counterfactual conditionals, such as “if the car had run out of petrol it would have stalled”,  they envisage two possibilities, the imagined conjecture (the car ran out of petrol and it stalled) and the presumed facts (the car did not run out of petrol and it did not stall).  Although alternative theories of reasoning have been tested for counterfactuals,  little is known about how people reason with counterpossibles, subjunctive conditionals with impossible antecedents, such as “if lakes were made of bleach people would not swim in them”. I discuss the results of several recent experiments designed to examine how people reason with a range of counterpossibles, that compare those that seem non-vacuously true, to those that seem vacuously true, and those that seem false. The experiments examine the judgments participants made about whether such counterpossibles are true or false and their tendency to make inferences such as modus ponens and modus tollens. I discuss the implications of the results for theories of how people understand and reason from counterfactual and counterpossible conditionals.

Marco J. Nathan (University of Denver)
“Counterfactuals as Placeholders: Take II”
In previous work, I advanced the thesis that counterfactuals, just like their corresponding dispositional properties, are placeholders standing in for predictions or explanations, without themselves actually predicting or explaining anything. This, I maintained, explains the role of subjunctive conditionals and dispositional properties in scientific practice. A few years later, I still believe that both of these constructs are placeholders. However, the placeholder thesis is in need of clarification and amendment. I was wrong to suggest that counterfactuals never explain, and this point can be clearly seen by drawing a distinction between two kinds of placeholders, ‘frames’ and ‘difference-makers.’ The goal of this talk is to elaborate and extend the placeholder view of counterfactuals and its role in scientific explanation, by focusing on examples from various branches of natural and social sciences. 

Peter Tan (Fordham University)
“Two Theses about Modality and Modelling”
Philosophers of science interested in the content of highly idealized scientific representations often claim that their content is modal in nature. There are two prevailing theses about the modal content of idealized models: the view that they provide information about what is merely possible (the “how-possibly thesis”), and the view that their content either literally is or is best understood counterfactually (the “counterfactual interpretation”). These theses about modality and modeling have not received a treatment that compares their advantages, and in fact, only recently has the how-possibly thesis begun to receive more scrutiny. I defend the counterfactual interpretation on three broad grounds. First, it coheres best with broader views about scientific representation; second, it provides a more unificatory account of model formulation and testing; lastly, it best allows for an empiricist-friendly view of the metaphysics of modality.

Humean Entanglement Workshop, Feb 2021

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On Monday 8 February 2021, the FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham hosted a free half-day workshop on the topic of Humean approaches to quantum entanglement via Zoom.

If you have any queries about this event, please email


2.30-3.20pm: Zee Perry(New York University, Shanghai) and Harjit Bhogal (University of Maryland, College Park)
“Humean Nomic Essentialism”

10-min break

3.30-4.20pm: Vera Matarese (University of Bern)
“A Humean Wave-Function for Quantum Mechanics”

20-min break

4.40-5.30pm: Craig Callender (University of California San Diego)“When Has Humeanism Gone Too Far?”


Zee Perry (New York University, Shanghai) and Harjit Bhogal (University of Maryland, College Park)
“Humean Nomic Essentialism”

Humeanism – the idea that there are no necessary connections between distinct existences – and Nomic Essentialism – the idea that properties essentially play the nomic roles that they do – are two of the most important and influential positions in the metaphysics of science. Traditionally, it has been thought that these positions were incompatible competitors. We disagree. We argue that there is an attractive version of Humeanism that captures the idea that, for example, mass essentially plays the role that it actually does in the laws of nature. In this paper we consider the arguments that have led many to concluded that Humeanism cannot be combined with Nomic Essentialism. We identify the weaknesses in these arguments, and we argue in detail that a version of Humeanism based on a variant of the Best Systems Account of laws captures the key intuitions behind Nomic Essentialism.

Vera Matarese (University of Bern): 
“A Humean Wave-Function for Quantum Mechanics”

David Lewis was the first to express concerns about the compatibility between Humeanism and Quantum Mechanics. One of the most important solutions to this problem is provided by Esfeld’s Quantum Humeanism (Esfeld 2014), which is now part of his far-reaching metaphysical thesis Super-Humeanism (Esfeld 2017; 2019). In this talk, I will focus on the treatment of the quantum wavefunction in Esfeld’s view; in particular, I will challenge his following claims: 1. The wave-function is a nomological parameter that makes the laws of nature simple; 2. The wave-function is located in the particle trajectories via its functional role; 3. The initial conditions of the wavefunction depend on the future trajectories of the particles.

Craig Callender (University of California San Diego): 
“When Has Humeanism Gone Too Far?”

Just as functionalists need to decide what not to be functionalist about, so too do Humean systematizers need to decide what’s not derived in the system. Exploiting this opportunity, Humeans have taken entities that were thought to be part of the mosaic and instead made them emerge from the best system description of the mosaic. This move has been done for chance (Lewis), instantaneous velocity (Callender), inertial frames (Huggett), mass (Hall) and the quantum state (Miller, Callender). Esfeld and collaborators have proposed doing it for fields and essentially everything but particle positions. When has this gone too far? Using the example of the quantum wavefunction, I’ll first discuss some new pros and cons of systemizing away the wavefunction, and then I’ll turn to the more general question of when the “rogue and narcissistic Bohumian” (Miller) can legitimately systematize away an entity.

Explanation by Constraint Workshop, Jan 2021

On Tuesday 19 January 2021, the FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham hosted a free half-day workshop on the topic of explanation by constraint.

If you have any queries, please email


2.30-3.20pm: Eleanor Knox (King’s College, London)
“On Constraints, Context, and Spatiotemporal Explanation”

3.30-4.20pm: Sara Green (University of Copenhagen)
“Constraint-based Explanation in Biology”

4.40-5.30pm: Lauren Ross (University of California, Irvine)
“The Explanatory Nature of Constraints”

5.40-6.30pm: Michael Bertrand (Ohio State University)
“Metaphysical Explanation by Constraint”


Sara Green (University of Copenhagen)
“Constraint-based Explanation in Biology”

Knowledge about physical constraints plays important roles in reasoning in biology but is rarely explicitly addressed by philosophers of biology. Biologists are not only interested in clarifying “how actually” a given function is produced by a given mechanism. Sometimes the aim is to understand why certain general patterns in anatomical structures or physiological strategies are observed in nature, despite what may seem like endless possibilities for biological diversity. This involves a delineation of “possibility spaces” for biological variation. This paper outlines how analysis on biological possibility-spaces is informed by reasoning about physical constraints and size-dependency of dominant forces. Whereas such examples have been highlighted by theoretical biologists for decades, I show how research on size-dependent constraints are of continued importance in studies of possible evolutionary trajectories, morphological patterning, as well as for what systems and synthetic biologists call design principles.

Lauren Ross (University of California, Irvine)
“The explanatory nature of constraints”

This talk provides an analysis of explanatory constraints and their role in scientific explanation. This analysis clarifies main characteristics of explanatory constraints, ways in which they differ from “standard” explanatory factors, and the unique roles they play in scientific explanation. While current philosophical work tends to appreciate two main types of explanatory constraints, this paper suggests a new taxonomy: law-based constraints, mathematical constraints, and causal constraints. This classification helps capture unique features of distinct constraint types, the different roles they play in explanation, and it includes causal constraints, which are often overlooked in this literature.

Density Matrix Realism Workshop, Nov 2020

On Tuesday 24 November 2020, FraMEPhys hosted a free one-day workshop on the topic of Density Matrix Realism via Zoom.


2.30-3.00pm: Katie Robertson (Birmingham)

3.00-3.45pm: Owen Maroney (Oxford)

10-min break

3.55-4.40pm: Roderich Tumulka (Tuebingen)

20-min break

5.00-5.45pm: Eddy Keming Chen (UC San Diego)

10-min break

5.55-6.25pm: General discussion and wrap-up


Roderich Tumulka (Tuebingen)
Why Bohmian mechanics allows for different roles of density matrices

As is well known, if you are doing a quantum experiment on a system with a random wave function Psi, then the statistics of outcomes can be expressed in terms of a density matrix rho; rho encodes information about the probability distribution mu of Psi. If you care only about computing these statistics, then mu and rho, or different mu’s with the same rho, are interchangeable for you. But in Bohmian mechanics, you need to be clear about what is real, and then several possibilities become visible: There might be a random wave function Psi with distribution mu (and then there is a fact in the world about which mu is correct), or there might just be rho but no Psi and no mu (with a modified version of Bohm’s equation of motion). So, as I will explain in my talk, Bohmian mechanics can give clear meaning to density matrix realism. This trait is, in fact, not limited to Bohmian mechanics, but applies also to other theories with a clear ontology in 3-space, such as some versions of the GRW collapse theory.

Eddy Keming Chen (UC San Diego)
‘The Wentaculus: Density Matrix Realism Meets the Arrow of Time’

In this talk, I explain my understanding of how to be a realist about the fundamental density matrix of the universe, and discuss the ramifications of such realism for understanding the arrow of time. Since the resultant theory is inspired by the “Mentaculus Vision” of David Albert and Barry Loewer, I call the overall pacakge “The Wentaculus,” where “W” stands for the fundamental density matrix. Unlike the Mentaculus, in the Wentaculus there is a uniquely possible initial quantum state of the universe. In this way, the Wentaculus does away with the need for a probability distribution over initial quantum states. I bring the Wentaculus to bear on several problems in the foundations of physics and the philosophy of science, including the nature of the quantum state and the status of the Past Hypothesis.

Idealized Models Workshop, Oct 2020

On Tuesday 6th October 2020, FraMEPhys hosted a free one-day workshop on the topic of idealized scientific models over Zoom.

Schedule (times BST)

2.00-2.50pm: Arnon Levy (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
“Must the best explanation be true?”

3.00-3.50pm: Alkistis Elliott-Graves (Helsinki University/University of Bielefeld)
“What are general models about?”

4.00-4.50pm: James Nguyen (University of London)
“Why (at least some) idealisations aren’t false”

5.00-5.50pm: Angela Potochnik (University of Cincinatti)
“Why it matters that idealizations are false”


James Nguyen (University of London)
“Why (at least some) idealisations aren’t false”

In order to understand how idealised models contribute to the epistemic success of science we need to understand how they, and models in general, represent. I outline the, relatively commonly held, view that modelling is an indirect enterprise: model descriptions serve to specify model systems, which in turn represent their target systems. I argue that, suitably interpreted, the idealised aspects of these model systems needn’t be understood as misrepresentations. I then discuss the upshot of this way of thinking in terms of the factivity of explanation and understanding.

Angela Potochnik (University of Cincinatti)
“Why it matters that idealizations are false”

Many of our best scientific explanations incorporate idealizations, that is, false assumptions. Philosophers of science disagree about whether and to what extent we must, as a result, give up on truth as a prerequisite for explanation and thus understanding. I propose reframing this. Factivism or veritism about explanation is not, I think, an obvious and preferable view to be given up only under duress. Rather, it is philosophically fruitful to emphasize how departures from the truth facilitate explanation (and understanding). I begin by motivating one version of the idea that idealizations positively contribute to understanding, then I make the case that it is philosophically important to emphasize this contribution of idealizations. I conclude with a positive account of what theorists about science stand to gain by acknowledging, even emphasizing, how certain departures from the truth benefit our scientific explanations.

Symmetries and Explanation Workshop, Mar 2020

On Friday 06 March 2020, FraMEPhys hosted a one-day workshop at the Univeristy of Birmingham ERI G51. Here is the original poster.


  • Adam Caulton (Oxford)
  • Niels Linnemann (Bremen)
  • Michael Townsen Hicks (Birmingham)
  • Marc Lange (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)


1000-1115: “Are Particles Characterised by a Symmetry Group? If So, Which One?” Adam Caulton, University of Oxford
Abstract: Ever since investigations into the group representation theory of spacetime symmetries, chiefly due to Wigner and Bargmann in the 1930s and ‘40s, it has become something of a mantra in particle physics that a particle is an irreducible representation of the Poincaré group (the symmetry group of Minkowski spacetime). Call this ‘Wigner’s identification’. One may ask, in a philosophical spirit, whether Wigner’s identification could serve as something like a real definition (as opposed to a nominal definition) of ‘particle’—at least for the purposes of relativistic quantum field theory. In this talk, I aim to show that, while Wigner’s identification is materially adequate for many purposes—principally scattering theory—it does not provide a serviceable definition. The main problem, or so I shall argue, is that the regime of legitimate particle talk surpasses the constraints put on it by Wigner’s identification. I aim further to show that, at least in the case of particles with mass, a promising rival definition is available. This promising rival emerges from investigations due to Foldy in the 1950s, which I will outline. The broad upshot is that the definition of ‘particle’ may well be the same in both the relativistic and non-relativistic contexts, and draws upon not the Poincaré group (or any other spacetime symmetry group) but rather the familiar Heisenberg relations.

Adam Caulton: “Are Particles Characterised by a Symmetry Group? If So, Which One?”

1115-1230: “On Metaphysically Necessary Laws from Physics.” Niels Linnemann, University of Bremen
Abstract: How does metaphysical necessity relate to the modal force often associated with natural laws (natural necessity)? Fine (2002) argues that natural necessity can neither be obtained from metaphysical necessity via forms of restriction nor of relativization — and therefore pleads for modal pluralism concerning natural and metaphysical necessity. Wolff (2013) aims at providing illustrative examples in support of applying Fine’s view to the laws of nature with specific recourse to the laws of physics: On the one hand, Wolff takes it that equations of motion can count as examples of physical laws that are only naturally but not metaphysically necessary. On the other hand, Wolff argues that a certain conservation law obtainable via Noether’s second theorem is an instance of a metaphysically necessary physical law. I show how Wolff’s example for a putatively metaphysically necessary conservation law fails but argue that so-called topological currents can nevertheless count as metaphysically necessary conservation laws carrying physical content. I conclude with a remark on employing physics to answer questions in metaphysics.

Niels Linnemann: “On Metaphysically Necessary Laws from Physics”

1400-1515: “Are Symmetry Explanations Grounding Explanations?” Mike Hicks, University of Birmingham. PowerPoint Slides
Abstract: I aim to show that there are two sorts of symmetry explanations that are plausibly regarded as grounding explanations. The first is the explanation of symmetry principles in terms of spacetime or property structure. I will argue that symmetry principles, which are constraints on the laws, are plausibly grounded in spacetime structure. The second is the explanation of conservation laws via symmetry principles. I will argue that symmetry principles ground conservation laws.

1530-1700: “What Was the ‘Great Advance’ of 20th-Century Physics that ‘Put Symmetry First’?” Marc Lange, UNC Chapel Hill
Abstract: I will characterize the difference between the way that symmetry principles and conservation laws were generally understood before and after the great revolutions of early 20th-century physics. I will elaborate this difference in terms of explanatory priority, modal status, and counterfactual resilience. Any account of natural law, natural necessity, and scientific explanation should leave room for symmetry principles and conservation laws to play either their pre-revolutionary role or their post-revolutionary role.

FraMEPhys/MetaScience Workshop, Dec 2019

On 9 December 2019, FraMEPhys and the MetaScience project jointly hosted a one-day workshop at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.


  • Alexander Franklin
  • Katie Robertson
  • Michael Townsen Hicks
  • Toby Friend
  • Vanessa Seifert


09:15 – Registration

09:30 – Welcome

09:40 – Alexander Franklin: “How to be a Bohmian Reductionist”
Abstract: While advocates of Bohmian mechanics generally evince reductionism, it’s far from clear how to make those two positions compatible. The core issue is that reductive explanations of the kind ubiquitous in science require reference not just to particle positions but also to features only found in the pilot wave. However, the pilot wave is generally interpreted as a non-local field, law, or universal disposition. As such, reductive explanations of, say, the hardness of a table essentially refer to entities which are not localised to any subregion of the universe. The Bohmian is thus faced with a dilemma: either they should embrace radical holism or they should engage with the project of articulating an ontology of effectively localised wavefunctions. I suggest ways in which this latter project may be developed, but note significant technical and conceptual challenges. I conclude by arguing that both horns of the dilemma render Bohmian mechanics rather less intuitive than is claimed by Bohmian reductionists.

10:40 – Coffee Break

10:55 – Katie Robertson: “Reduction, Abstraction and Approximation”
Abstract: There is a common distinction between two types of reduction: (i) horizontal reduction: the reduction of an older theory to its successor, and (ii) vertical reduction: the reduction of a higher-level, or macroscopic, theory to an underlying microscopic theory. Each has different philosophical consequences. Horizontal reduction is important for continuity over theory change, and thus is key to the scientific realism debate, whereas vertical reduction has metaphysical consequences. But it is not always obvious how, or indeed whether, the two types of reduction can be distinguished. In this paper, I give an account of the distinction in terms of subject matters. In the case of horizontal reduction, the two theories describe the same subject matter, although the successor theory will be more accurate. Consequently, the older theory approximates the successor theory. In contrast, in the case of vertical reduction, the two theories describe different subject matters — it is not the case that one theory is more accurate than the other, since each theory answers different questions. In particular, the higher-level theory abstracts away from details described by the lower-level theory. Having made the distinction between vertical and horizontal reduction in terms of abstraction and approximation, I then discuss other views’ in the literature, and the dangers of failing to distinguish between abstraction and approximation. On the one hand, Strevens’ treats all approximation as abstraction, but this view fails to respect scientific practice: often scientists want to remove approximations, if possible. On the other hand, treating all abstraction as approximation results in treating all special sciences as an inferior handle on a fundamental description, and thus fails to respect the explanatory value of the special sciences.

12:00 – Toby Friend: “Indeterministic Compositional Emergence”
Abstract: I show that if there exists genuinely indeterminately composed objects then there will exist many cases of emergence which are strongly emergent whilst remaining consistent with physicalism. These cases threaten two common assumptions: that strong emergence occurs, if at all, only in rare cases, and that strong emergence is inconsistent with physicalism. I present a relatively mundane example involving sections composed from a row of coloured dominoes. Granting that these sections are genuinely indeterminately composed, it is straightforward to show they have causally novel features with respect to the directness of their causal powers. This, I argue, is sufficient for strong emergence, as it is defined within the powers-framework. The example also demonstrates how strongly emergent features can avoid ‘collapse’ into their base features despite being nomologically dependent on them, all the while remaining consistent with physicalism. I finally show how this proof of strong emergence can be applied to another more weighty case: that of the mind’s emergence from the physical. I question whether the ease with which strong emergence is proven reflects poorly on the powers-framework.

13:00 – Lunch 

14:30 – Michael Townsen Hicks: “Symmetries, Explanation, and the Metaphysics of Laws”
Abstract: Symmetry principles are regarded by many physicists as among the deepest and most explanatory physical principles. Noether’s first theorem and its inverse tell us that for every variational symmetry of a Lagrangian, there is a corresponding conserved quantity, and for every conserved quantity in a Lagrangian system, there is a corresponding variational symmetry. Many physicists and philosophers of physics have taken this to mean that symmetries explain conservation laws. But how does this explanation work? I’ll present two currently prominent views, criticize them, and argue for a third. First, Brown and Holland (2005) have argued that the symmetries don’t explain the conservation laws at all. Rather, they hold the conservation laws and the symmetries are both a result of the underlying Lagrangian dynamics. Second, Marc Lange (2007, 2009) has argued that the symmetry principles are higher-order laws that govern the first-order dynamical laws. On Lange’s view, the symmetry principles explain by governing: the relationship between symmetries and conservation laws is similar to the relationship between dynamical laws and the corresponding particular events they govern. Finally, I will argue that the symmetry principles explain the conservation laws by partially grounding them: the symmetry principles describe a more fundamental level of spatio-temporal structure than the conservation laws, and so the explanation goes via metaphysical dependence. After presenting these views, I’ll argue that Brown’s dynamics-first view fails to appreciate evidence for metaphysical dependence, and that Lange’s governing view is mistaken to take the symmetry principles to be higher-order. I’ll conclude by considering a counterexample to the claim that the symmetries explain dynamical facts by grounding them: Parity is not a symmetry of the laws dynamics, but this dynamic asymmetry arguably isn’t grounded in a spatiotemporal asymmetry.

15:30 – Coffee Break

15:45 – Vanessa Seifert: “The Chemical Bond as a Real Pattern”
Abstract: A central concept which is invoked in chemistry and in quantum chemistry in order to describe the structure of a molecule is the chemical bond. Given this, a pressing philosophical question is whether the chemical bond exists and what sort of thing it is. This question is primarily discussed in the context of Hendry’s distinction between the structural and the energetic conception of the chemical bond. The structural conception takes chemical bonds to be ‘material parts of the molecule that are responsible for spatially localized submolecular relationships between individual atomic centers’ (Hendry 2006: 917). The structural conception is taken as supporting an understanding of chemical bonds as entities. The energetic conception takes ‘chemical bonding’ to signify ‘facts about energy changes between molecular or supermolecular states’ (Hendry 2006: 919). The energetic conception remains agnostic as to whether the chemical bond is an entity (or as to whether it even exists) and it is consistent with an understanding of chemical bonds as properties of a molecule. The metaphysical interpretation of each conception allegedly creates a tension between the two conceptions because the former is consistent with an understanding of chemical bonds as entities, whereas the latter is consistent with an understanding of chemical bonds as either fictional entities, or real properties of molecules. I argue that this tension can be resolved in a manner that supports the reality of chemical bonds. Specifically, if one takes the two conceptions as representing distinct yet incomplete intensions of the same referent (i.e. the chemical bond), then both conceptions can be invoked to mutually support an understanding of chemical bonds as patterns within a molecule. Such an understanding of chemical bonds is also supported by how chemistry and quantum chemistry each describe and pictorially represent chemical bonds. Several questions need to be addressed in order to sufficiently support the reality of chemical bonds as patterns. First, if a chemical bond refers to a pattern within molecules, then what is it a pattern of? Secondly, assuming that chemical bonds are patterns, what is the respective ‘noise’ in the chemical and quantum chemical descriptions of a chemical bond, and what is the role of ‘noise’ in predicting a molecule’s structure? Thirdly, is there sufficient empirical evidence to support that the elements of this pattern are real and not merely apparent? I examine these questions in light of the literature on real patterns and briefly outline the advantages of understanding chemical bonds as real patterns. Examining the nature and reality of chemical bonds in the context of the literature on real patterns provides a novel perspective through which one can understand the nature of the chemical bond, but also through which one can reevaluate the tenability of structural realist accounts in the philosophy of science.
References: Hendry R.F., 2006, ‘Two Conceptions of the Chemical Bond’, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 75, No. 5, pp. 909-920

16:45 – Close

Workshop on Grounding and the Laws of Nature, Jun 2019

On 4-5 June 2019, the FraMEPhys project hosted a two-day international workshop on Grounding and the Laws of Nature at the University of Birmingham.

The day before the workshop, 3 June, we hosted Mark Pexton (Durham) to talk about “Contextuality, Emergence and Unification in Physics” as part of the FraMEPhys Seminar series.

Tuesday 4th June

09.15 – 10.30
Michael Hicks (Köln): “Contrastivism and Explanation”
Comments: Vera Matarese (Czech Academy of Sciences)

Many philosophers hold that explanation is contrastive: A’s explaining B consists in A rather than A’ (some other option A is contrasted with) explaining B rather than B’. We explain why we went to the store partially by showing why we didn’t stay home; the relevant contrast (staying home) helps determine what’s a suitable explanation. In this paper, I’ll show how contrastivism about explanation connects to current debates about the explanatory power of laws. Some philosophers, most prominently Skow, hold that the laws do not explain first-order events, but instead ground explanatory relations. By carefully examining the relevant contrasts in these meta-explanations, I’ll argue that the truth of the laws is not a part of the explanans. I’ll then connect this conclusion to circularity worries around Humean laws.

10.45 – 12.00
Erica Shumener (Pittsburgh): “Governance and Necessitation”
Abstract: In this paper, I offer a new account of what it is for the laws of nature to govern. I argue that deterministic laws govern when they (along with initial conditions) productively necessitate which events occur. I define productive necessitation, and I argue that this account of governance can capture what it means for the laws of nature to guide or direct the evolution of events. Finally, I maintain that once we understand governance in the way I suggest, we can understand why it is important for the laws of nature to govern: the laws must govern in order to have explanatory power.

12.15 – 13.30
Zee Perry (Colorado): “Nothing in the Rule Book Says a Dog Can’t Play Basketball”

13.30 – 14.30

14.30 – 15.45
Nina Emery (Mt. Holyoke): “The Governing Conception of Laws”
Comments: Henry Taylor (Birmingham)
Abstract: In her paper, “The Non-Governing Conception of Laws,” Helen Beebee argues that it is not a conceptual truth that laws of nature govern their instances, and that this fact insulates Humeans about laws of nature from some of the most pressing objections against that view. I agree with the first claim, but not the second. For although it is not a conceptual truth that laws govern, the view that laws govern follows straightforwardly from an important, though under-appreciated, principle that constrains scientific theory choice, and the principles that constrain scientific theory choice ought to constrain theory choice in metaphysics as well. I then show how the specific understanding of governance that plays a role in this argument raises serious concerns for Humeans about laws of nature.

16.00 – 17.15
Alastair Wilson (Birmingham): “Counterpossible Reasoning in Physics”
This talk explores three ways in which physics may involve us in counterpossible reasoning: by assessing the consequences of impossible theories, by invoking impossible interventions in the characterization of causal structure and by invoking impossible interventions in the characterization of grounding structure. It is argued that while the first role is dispensable, the latter two roles present a substantial challenge to necessitarian accounts of laws. A framework of impossible worlds provides one potential response to the challenge. Video here.

17.00 – 22.00
Dinner at Cherry Reds

Wednesday 5th June

09.15 – 10.30
Tuomas Tahko (Bristol): “Laws of Metaphysics for Essentialists”
Abstract: There is a line of thought gathering momentum which suggests that just like causal laws govern causation, there needs to be something in metaphysics that governs metaphysical relations. Such ‘laws of metaphysics’ would be counterfactual-supporting general principles that are responsible for the explanatory force of metaphysical explanations. There are various suggestions about how such principles could be understood. They could be based on what Kelly Trogdon calls grounding-mechanical explanations, where the role that grounding mechanisms play in certain metaphysical explanations mirrors the role that causal mechanisms play in certain scientific explanations. Another approach, by Jonathan Schaffer, claims to be neutral regarding grounding or essences (although he does commit to the idea that metaphysical explanation is ‘backed’ by grounding relations). In this paper I will assess these suggestions and argue that for those willing to invoke essences, there is a more promising route available: the unificatory role of metaphysical explanation may be accounted for in terms of natural kind essences.

10.45 – 12.00
John Roberts (North Carolina): “Laws of Nature and Effectiveness of Methods: Who Grounds Whom?”

12.15 – 13.30
Harjit Bhogal (Maryland): “Two Conceptions of Explanation and the “Postmodal” Approach to Metaphysics”
Comments: Dan Marshall (Lingnan)
Abstract: Imagine we see three ravens and we notice something interesting — they are all black. This pattern needs an explanation. If we then see ten ravens that are all black this needs explaining even more — increasing the generality of the pattern just increases the need for explanation. So if we find out that all ravens are black this pattern needs explaining even more. And if we find out that in all possible worlds all ravens are black — that is, necessarily all ravens are black — this needs explaining yet more! So, such modal facts need explaining, presumably by postmodal facts, like ground or essence. (Unless we have a pattern subsumption view of explanation, in which case things are more complicated.) 

13.30 – 15.00
Lunch and finish

Workshop, April 3 2019: Levels of Explanation

On 3 April 2019, the FraMEPhys project hosted a one-day workshop on Levels of Explanation at the University of Birmingham. Any queries concerning this event can be directed to .


9.00-9.30 – Coffee and pastries

9.30-10.30 – David Yates (Lisbon), “Multilevel explanations and the causal completeness of the physical”

The causal closure of the physical poses a familiar causal exclusion problem for the special sciences: special science properties are distinct from their physical realizers, but if the physical domain is causally closed, then what causal work is left for such properties to do? In this talk, I begin by making explicit a widely held assumption relating causal closure and causal explanation, viz. that causal closure entails causal-explanatory closure. I then suggest that there are irreducibly multilevel explanations in physics, involving both basic physical properties and multiply realizable higher-level properties. Such explanations violate the causal-explanatory closure of the basic physical domain, so either the basic physical domain is not causally closed, or causal closure does not entail causal-explanatory closure. This in turn depends on how the closure principle is formulated, in particular on how we elucidate the claim that basic physical properties do all the causal work required to bring about basic physical effects. I argue that on a reasonable powers-based closure principle, the causal closure of the basic physical domain is consistent with a form of downward causation in which higher-level properties act as irreducible constraints on the manifestation of basic physical powers. This kind of closure principle does not entail causal-explanatory closure, and poses no problem of causal exclusion for the special sciences.

10.30-11.30 – Karen Crowther (Geneva), “Levels of Fundamentality in the Metaphysics of Physics”

Judging by how physicists use the term, there are many different conceptions of what it means for a physical theory to be ‘fundamental’. Yet, it has been argued that none of these imply metaphysical fundamentality. Here, I argue that there is a plausible sense of relative fundamentality in physics that corresponds to a fairly standard conception of relative fundamentality according to metaphysics. I discuss what the implications of this are for our understanding of ‘levels’ of fundamentality and explanation.

11.30- 12.00 – Break

12.00-1.00 – Christian List (LSE), “Levels: Descriptive, Explanatory, and Ontological”

Scientists and philosophers frequently speak about levels of description, levels of explanation, and ontological levels. In this paper, I propose a unified framework for modelling levels. I give a general definition of a system of levels and show that it can accommodate descriptive, explanatory, and ontological notions of levels. I further illustrate the usefulness of this framework by applying it to some salient philosophical questions: (1) Is there a linear hierarchy of levels, with a fundamental level at the bottom? And what does the answer to this question imply for physicalism, the thesis that everything supervenes on the physical? (2) Are there emergent properties? (3) Are higher-level descriptions reducible to lower-level ones? (4) Can the relationship between normative and non-normative domains be viewed as one involving levels? Although I use the terminology of “levels”, the proposed framework can also represent “scales”, “domains”, or “subject matters”, where these are not linearly but only partially ordered by relations of supervenience or inclusion.

1.00-2.00 – Lunch

2.00-3.00 – Lina Jansson (Nottingham), “Selection of Explanatory ‘Grain’: How to Favour the General but not the Disjunctive”

On the one hand, we seem to value generality in explanations. On the other hand, we seem to disvalue disjunctive explanantia. This raises the challenge of spelling out how exactly we settle the right level of explanatory generality. In this article I suggest how we can do so in a way that avoids endorsing disjunctive explanantia from within an epistemic account of explanation focused on providing dependence information.

3.00-4.00 – Eleanor Knox (King’s), ” From Abstraction to Explanation to Levels: some thoughts”

This talk explores the prospects for extending an account of emergence based on explanatory novelty (Knox 2016, Knox and Franklin, 2018) to an account of levels. I examine in particular whether we can see this view as a matter of metaphysics and hence as offering an account of ontological levels. I conclude that, as long we don’t expect too much from our levels, the prospects for an account of levels centred on the Knox-Franklin view on emergence look good.

4.00-4.30 – Break

4.30-5.30 – Alex Franklin (King’s/Bristol), “How do levels emerge?”

Science describes the world at a number of different levels, but questions remain over how such levels are constituted. In this paper, I offer an account of levels which allows higher levels to be both emergent from and reducible to lower levels. I argue that two descriptions of the world are at different levels if one is autonomous from the other: that implies that prediction and explanation at the higher level may proceed without reference to details required for lower-level descriptions. Following Franklin and Knox (2018), I claim that higher levels are emergent if they also give rise to novel explanations. I further claim that a level is reducible if we are able to explain its autonomy from the bottom up. One feature of my account is that the instantiation of levels depends on context: this has the upshot that top-down causation is ruled out. I explore this consequence with reference to Mitchell (2012).

7.00 – Dinner at Cherry Reds

2019 Conference: Metaphysical Explanation in Science

The FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham and the Metaphysical Explanation project at the University of Gothenburg hosted a two-day conference on Metaphysical Explanation in Science on 10-11 January 2019 at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Podcasts of selected talks are coming soon!

Thursday 10 January 2019

  • 09:10 – Coffee and pastries
  • 09:30 – Elanor Taylor (Johns Hopkins), “Backing without Realism”. Comments: Naomi Thompson (Southampton/Gothenburg)
  • 10:45 – Coffee
  • 11:00 – Juha Saatsi (Leeds), “Which explanations in science are “metaphysical” (and why)?”. Comments: Robin Stenwall (Lund)
  • 12:15 – Lunch
  • 13:30 – Silvia Bianchi (Pavia), “Metaphysical Grounding as a Non-foundationalist Explanation of Quantum Entanglement: on the Plausibility of Weak Structuralism and Thin Objects”. Comments: Joaquim Giannotti (Glasgow)
  • 14:45 – Break
  • 14:55 – Roberto Fumagalli (King’s College London), “How Thin Rational Choice Theory Explains Choices”. Comments: Adam Bales (Cambridge)
  • 16:10 – Tea
  • 16:30 – Michael Strevens (NYU), “Necessity in Scientific Explanation”
  • 17:45 – Finish
  • 18:45 – Dinner

Friday 11 January 2019

  • 09:10 – Coffee and pastries
  • 09:30 – Stephan Leuenberger (Glasgow), “Merely partial metaphysical explanation”. Comments: Anna-Sofia Maurin (Gothenburg)
  • 10:45 – Coffee
  • 11:00 – Amanda Bryant (Trent), “Toward a Scientifically Responsible Metaphysics of Ground”. Comments: Ashton Green (Notre Dame)
  • 12:15 – Lunch
  • 13:30 – David Kovacs (Tel Aviv), “The Problem of Meta-Causation”. Comments: Andrew Brenner (Gothenburg)
  • 14:45 – Break
  • 14:55 – Atoosa Kasirzadeh (Toronto), “Can Mathematics Really Make a Difference?” Comments: Samuel Kimpton-Nye (King’s College London)
  • 16:10 – Tea
  • 16:30 – Samuel Baron (Western Australia), “Counterfactual Scheming”. Comments: Martin Glazier (Hamburg).
  • 17:45 – Finish

Time and Explanation – CPT/FraMEPhys Workshop, Aug 2018

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In August 2018, the Centre for Philosophy of Time at the University of Milan and the FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham co-hosted a two-day workshop on Time and Explanation. Here’s the poster.


  • Alastair Wilson
  • David Ingram
  • Alison Fernandes
  • Michael Hicks
  • Samuel Baron
  • Christina Conroy
  • Heather Demarest


Monday 20 August
13.00 – 13.15: Alastair Wilson – Introduction
13.15 – 14.45: David Ingram – “Nefarious Metaphysical Explanations”
15.00 – 16.30: Alison Fernandes – “Three Accounts of Laws and Time”
16.45 – 18.15: Michael Hicks – “Space-Time Symmetries and Inductive Discovery”

Tuesday 21 August
10.00 – 11.30: Sam Baron – “The Metaphysics of Spacetime Emergence”
11.45 – 13.15: Christina Conroy & Alastair Wilson – “Relationism and the Structure of Time”
15.00 – 16.30: Heather Demarest – “Flowing Alone”
16.45 – 17.15: General discussion


“The Metaphysics of Spacetime Emergence.” Samuel Baron (University of Western Australia)
Recent developments in physics suggest that spacetime is not fundamental but arises from a fundamental reality that lacks spatial, temporal and spatiotemporal properties. I argue that standard metaphysical accounts of emergence won’t work for the emergence of spacetime and so a new metaphysics is needed.

“Relationism and the Structure of Time.” Christina Conroy (Morehead State University) & Alastair Wilson (University of Birmingham and Monash University)
We discuss the contingency (or lack thereof) of some widely-discussed views about the structure of time, and defend a necessitarian perspective according to which the structure of time (in particular, its topological structure) should be regarded as epistemically but not metaphysically contingent. This perspective opens up a new way of defending relationism about time.

“Flowing Alone. Heather Demarest (University of Colorado, Boulder)
Standardly, presentist theories of time accept both a shared, universal present moment as well as flow. But, these two features are notoriously difficult to reconcile with special relativity, according to which there is no absolute, non-conventional simultaneity. I explore a view that I think is worthy of serious consideration. This view rejects a universal, shared present, but accepts temporal flow. I argue that this view can accommodate the time dilation of special relativity, and also, that it can recover the intuitive picture of ourselves as beings who change as time passes.

“Three Accounts of Laws and Time.” Alison Fernandes (Warwick University/Trinity College, Dublin)
Loewer distinguishes two approaches to the metaphysics of science: Humean accounts that deny primitive modality and explain temporal asymmetries in scientific terms, and anti-Humean accounts that take temporal asymmetry and modality as primitives. I’ll argue that Loewer neglects an important third approach: explain temporal asymmetries as well as the function of modal notions in scientific terms. This kind of pragmatist approach provides a clear ontology to fundamental science, and doesn’t replace scientific explanation with metaphysics.

“Space-Time Symmetries and Inductive Discovery.” Michael Hicks (University of Cologne)
Recently, a number of authors (Jaag and Loew, Dorst) have argued that pragmatic considerations motivate the idea that they laws of physics should be invariant under certain symmetry transformations. These arguments follow Wigner (1967) in noting that laws which are not invariant under, for example, the Poincare symmetry group will deliver behavior that varies in different experimental contexts. Since our only access to laws is through their application to a wide variety of isolated systems, the argument goes, we would be unable to inductively discover such laws. Some Humeans have gone further: they’ve argued that this constraint on inductive practice allows us to give a pragmatic explanation of this feature of laws. Here, I’ll argue that that this argument goes too far: laws could fail to be invariant under any of these symmetries and still be discoverable and applicable–provided their divergence from perfectly respecting these symmetries is not too great. So, rather than requiring laws to be strictly invariant under these symmetry transformations, we should require something weaker, for example, invariance in a low-energy limit. I conclude by arguing that, given that the induction requires less than full invariance under these transformations, the Humean pragmatic explanation of symmetry invariances does not go through.

“Nefarious Metaphysical Explanations.” David Ingram (University of York)
I extend and develop some recent ideas about ‘nefarious’ responses to the truth-maker problem facing presentism (see ‘Nefarious Presentism’, Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 65; ‘Truth and Dependence’, Ergo, vol. 5). I argue that the success of this project of ‘nefarious metaphysical explanation’ may prove decisive in the debate between presentism and non-presentism.

This event is supported by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 757295), together with the Department of Philosophy of the University of Milan.

Centre for Philosophy of Time:


Explanatory Pluralism – Workshop, June 2018

On Tuesday 19 June 2018, FraMEPhys hosted a one-day workshop at the Univeristy of Birmingham. Here’s the original poster.


  • Tudor Baetu (Bristol)
  • Mazviita Chirimuuta (Pittsburgh)
  • Lina Jansson (Nottingham)
  • Isaac Wilhelm (Rutgers)
  • Alastair Wilson (Birmingham)


10.00am – 10.15am: Alastair Wilson – “Intro: FraMEPhys and Pluralism”
10.15am – 11.30am: Lina Jansson – “Explanatory Pluralism and Realism”
11.45am – 1.00pm: Isaac Wilhelm – “Explanatory Priority Monism”
1.00 – 2.00pm: Lunch
2.00pm – 3.15pm: Mazviita Chirimuuta – “Prediction, Explanation, and the Limits of Neuroscience”
3.30pm – 4.45pm: Tudor Baetu – “Multidisciplinary Integration and the Level-Laden Conception of Science”
4.45pm – 5.00pm: Closing discussion”


“Multidisciplinary Integration and the Level-Laden Conception of Science.” Tudor Baetu

Abstract: Causal models aggregating ‘lower-level’ (e.g., biological) and ‘higher-level’ (psychological) determinants of a phenomenonraise a puzzle about how interactions between these factors are possible. I argue that these models are in fact level-neutral compilations of empirical findings about correlated and causally relevant factors, and as such they neither assume, nor entail a conceptual or ontological stratification into levels of description, explanation or reality. If inter-level causation is deemed problematic or if debates about the superiority of a particular level of description or explanation arise, these issues are fuelled by considerations other than empirical findings.

“Multidisciplinary Integration and the Level-Laden Conception of Science.” Tudor Baetu

“Prediction, Explanation, and the Limits of Neuroscience.” Mazviita Chirimuuta

Abstract: A major task for neuroscience in the 21st century is to illuminate the relationship between neural population activity and behaviours such as sensory discrimination and motor control. Amongst technological goals, the ability to decode the activity of neural populations in order to drive brain machine interfaces is fairly advanced. Here I will argue that in order for models describing the relationship between neural activity and behaviour to serve epistemic goals going beyond mere prediction, they must be interpretable by scientists. While the technological goal of decoding was initially served by highly interpretable linear models, some recent advances have come through the use of AI methods that sacrifice interpretability for predictive accuracy. Such models offer explanations (of some kinds) without understanding. I discuss the implications for the distinction between basic and applied science, and argue that understanding should remain a central epistemic goal for neuroscience.

“Prediction, Explanation, and the Limits of Neuroscience.” Mazviita Chirimuuta

“Explanatory Pluralism and Realism”. Lina Jansson

Abstract: In light of the range of explanations that we find in science (and beyond), some pluralism about accounts of explanation seems very plausible.  We could take this to suggest that there is no (even if thin) unified account of explanation to give that is on its own capable of recovering some of the main features of explanation.  I will argue that such a view challenges central arguments for scientific realism and explore which features of explanation that such arguments for realism rely on.

“Explanatory Pluralism and Realism”. Lina Jansson

“Explanatory Priority Monism”. Isaac Wilhelm

Abstract: I argue that there is one relation which backs all cases of explanation. That relation explains why causation, grounding, and other such relations, are capable of backing explanations.

“Explanatory Priority Monism”. Isaac Wilhelm